European Affairs

One aspect of those relationships that is demanding more attention is the increasing role of the European Parliament in the EU decision making process.We should encourage more delegations from the U.S. Congress to travel to Europe for exchanges with European Parliamentarians to identify further areas in which we can work together.We should also strive to correct possible misunderstandings, for example that our stricter border security measures are intended to diminish the flow of foreign visitors to the United States.

It is very important that we communicate a message in Europe and around the globe that we welcome business travelers, students and tourists. We are delighted that, despite the security challenges, international travel from Europe has actually increased, a trend we hope will continue. The Department of Homeland Security is working hard not just to strengthen security, but also to let people know that we want them to come to America with a minimum amount of difficulty.

We recognize that, in our initial attempt to enhance security by tightening visa requirements, we almost cut off the flow of foreign students that are so important to us in expanding democracy across the globe. So we have tried to address that problem by improving our systems without diminishing security. And we have made significant improvements. For instance, even in Saudi Arabia, one of the most difficult cases, about 80 percent of visas are now issued within two weeks of the date of application.We have set up a 24-hour response team to address problems at our ports of entry encountered by students who already have visas, to make sure that the problems are not simply technicalities.

We know that there have also been problems for business travelers from Britain and other EU countries. Some have felt that they have been treated rudely on entering the United States, and that, while security measures may be necessary, there has not been a welcoming atmosphere at U.S. ports of entry.We have undertaken a new initiative to address these problems, to provide some room for discretion at the point of entry and to ensure that people are not turned away simply because of a technical violation.

We shall continue to improve our procedures, without jeopardizing security. This is the right thing to do, but we also do not want to lose any competitive advantage. Whenever we lose business conferences to London, for example, because of the difficulty of our visa system, we are encouraged to work even harder to solve these problems.

In fact, the legislation that set up the Department of Homeland Security wisely stipulated that the department must secure the borders and transportation systems of the United States from terrorists in a way that is consistent with the lawful flow of commerce. We take that commitment very seriously. So as we introduce biometric identification requirements at our borders, we shall be closely monitoring the possible effects on commercial flows.We shall look at issues like the length of waiting times for visitors at the point of entry and the rate of false positive biometric readings.We are already carefully studying the working of the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), which helps us identify airline passengers before they reach the United States, to see how it is affecting airlines and airports. So there is a built-in requirement at each step to ensure that we evaluate the economic consequences of our actions.

As we develop our procedures, each step seems to prepare the way for the next. In order to enhance security, we want more information on individual airline passengers. Once we have compiled that information, for example through biometric identity checks and the examination of past travel records, we can make travel easier for the vast majority of people who present no risks.

We can introduce an international registered travel program that allows regular travelers who have already been cleared to pass through security more quickly. Although there are still some difficulties over the necessary exchanges of information among governments, we might be able to set up a pilot program later this year. We are in a transitional period. We are enhancing security, but we shall soon reach the point at which we can actually start facilitating travel and reducing the burden on business.

Of course, we still have problems to resolve - as was demonstrated by a recent incident in which a passenger on the terrorist- watch list was discovered aboard an Air France flight on its way to the United States. In that case, Air France did not catch the error in advance, and the media started demanding how such a situation could be avoided in future. One answer is that we have earlier exchanges of information on passenger lists.

We do not, however, want the burden of carrying out such checks to fall on the private sector - they should be the responsibility of governments, not of the airlines. This is another area in which the United States and the European Union have to work together. We have also issued a new set of air cargo rules that for the first time require private carriers to carry out a degree of physical inspection of freight loaded into aircraft holds. Here again, we shall have to examine the cost to the private carriers, but we plan to extend the system.

Domestically, we are working toward better ways of establishing an individual’s identity. That does not mean introducing a national identity card, because the law prohibits that, but it does mean that we want to have enough information to focus on bad people and lessen the burden on good people. The establishment of national, rather than state standards for drivers’ licenses would be a good way to start.

This kind of approach, of course, will require safeguards to protect individual privacy and offer redress if people are wrongly identified as suspicious.We have already created a civil liberties board, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission Report, which is taking an inventory of what the government is doing to protect private data.

We have also implemented a recommendation by the Commission that we improve coordination among government terrorist screening procedures.We found out that the various branches of the government are operating over 94 different terrorist screening operations. Visitors to the Pentagon, for instance, to the Department of Homeland Security or even to a national park are all likely to have to submit to different screening procedures using different databases. Even within the Department of Homeland Security, the guards are using different kinds of biometric scans.

It is essential that we improve coordination and information exchanges in this area. It is very important that if we find a potential terrorist trying to enter a national park, we give that information to the State Department, our inspectors at ports of entry and other departments. And while we are going to try to do a better job within our own government, a similar effort needs to be made at international level.

We shall not achieve a satisfactory international system within the next six months, but we must move in that direction. We need common standards for biometrics, and we applaud the European Commission for its aggressive role in provisionally identifying finger scans as a useful biometric technique. Once we have developed common standards, we should move on to information sharing, so that if one country identifies a terrorist risk the information should be provided to any allied country that might need it.

This is totally against the bureaucratic culture of our government departments, as well as those of other countries. But I believe that it is what the future holds.We shall have to work to resolve delicate issues of data protection and the need not to disclose sensitive investigative data. But I believe that our citizens expect us to solve these problems.

The United States and the European Union must also develop our exchanges of information on science and technology. The United States, for instance, is exploring how to protect civilian aircraft against portable ground-launched missiles. If different kinds of research are being conducted for this purpose in Europe, then we should be exchanging information about our respective efforts. Again, with respect to air cargo, it would place a great burden on the aviation industry if Europe and the United States adopted different rules, or regulations that clashed with each other.

The common threat of terrorism that we both face is not going to go away in the foreseeable future. For the moment, we have a number of different viewpoints as to how to fight that threat. But I believe that these differences will lessen, and that the terrorist threat will ultimately enhance our cooperation on security, bring us closer together and strengthen our overall relationship.

Asa Hutchinson heads the Homeland Security Practice at Venable LLP in Washington D.C. At the time of this writing he was Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security (BTS) at the Department of Homeland Security (January 2003 to March 2005). He was previously Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). From 1997 to 2001, he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Arkansas, serving on the House Select Committee on Intelligence and the Judiciary Committee.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 6, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2005.